Emeth at Canticlysm has a marvelous description [2005: now at her new blog] of how she learned Japanese in an unbalanced but thoroughly enjoyable way:

When I was twelve, my mother bought me a mystery novel, Kiganjo, about a French gentleman robber named Lupin. It was a long series of books, translated from French to Japanese, about a handsome, dashing nobleman, a genius at disguises, who went around solving mysteries, robbing rich bad guys, and helping people.

At the time, I couldn’t read much Japanese (the 100 letters of the alphabet and about 100 kanji). It took me several hours to read the first couple pages, but I was drawn into the story. I read the book for hours and hours every day, looking up every word I couldn’t read, which was about every other word. By the end of the week, I finished reading my first “real” book in Japanese and had fallen completely in love with Lupin. I begged her to buy the next book, read it in about 3 days, and the next, and the next. By the time I finished about 20, I was reading one volume a day, starting in the morning, and finishing it in the evening. (I was able to do this because I didn’t do any formal study for about 4 years, but that’s a different story.)
For a while, my Japanese vocabulary was very unbalanced. I didn’t know how to say the most basic everyday things, but I did know how to describe how a person could be bludgeoned to death in a secret underground passage under ancient castle ruins.
Mama and Papa realized they would be buying a book a day for who knew how long, and we just moved to a new place near a library, so I began an intense relationship with the mystery section at the library. Over the next year and a half, I read at least one mystery a day, and finished reading the entire section (over 400 books), learning about 2500 kanji. I kept going back to my favourite character, Lupin, and ended up reading through the 36-volume series three times.

Now that’s what I call effective study technique, fitting very well with Alaric Radosh’s suggestions discussed here earlier.


  1. That reminds me of Ludo and Sybilla, “mastering thoroughly” their two kanji a day, in The Last Samurai (which I, too, read by your recommendation, hat). Although Ludo was obsessed with samurai rather than Lupin, of course.

  2. Lupin and his friends also showed up in anime. A descendent of his (Lupin III) in a movie. I’ve seen some episodes of the former, filled with innuendo, comic bits, and social commentary. Don’t know how faithful it is to the books.

  3. Wonderful! Like Alaric, an inspiration.
    As someone who loves reading more than almost anything else, it just staggers me that I never figured this out myself.

  4. The American psychologist/philosopher George Herbert Mead grew up in an area of New England with a large French-speaking population, and learned the language from the neighborhood and from pulp fiction and comic books. I know a guy who learned a fair amount of Italian from record jackets — he collected obscure prog-rock.
    Not really OT: Jack Kerouac’s father published a French-language newspaper. The Kerouac family was originally Breton and may not have been French-speaking when they arrived in Canada.

  5. How about that: bel et bien breton! (According to Hervé Quéméner and Patricia Girard, anyway.) I love knowing this stuff. (Did you know that Stalin’s family was originally Ossetian, not Georgian? The dzhug- part of Dzhugashvili is an Ossetian word.)

  6. related, although a bit more post-modern:
    one of my daughters was a pokemon fanatic at age 6. i got her the japanese pre-release game boy pokemon gold version which wouldn’t be available in english for 6 months. one day i came home to find my desk covered with papers in kanji (hiragana and katakana) all in a 6 year old’s hand. this sparked her interest in all things japanese. she now spends her pocket money on japanese manga. she is 10. effective study technique.

  7. Hat, this is one of those really weird coincidences, but the Ossetes are descended from the As, Aas, or Alans, who in turn were descended from a branch of the Scythians. At the end of the Roman Empire an Alan military unit settled in “Armorica” at about the same time (~500 A.D.) that the Bretons driven out by the Anglo-Saxons showed up there, and the two groups intermarried. The name “Alan” in French and English, especially in geographical names, is thought to trace back to this people.
    So there’s your Stalin-Kerouac connection for you.
    Mandelstam’s poem calls Stalin an Ossete, I think. I always thought that was a mistake. Wish I could read Russian!
    There used to be in Portland here a Georgian working as a janitor who had been drafted into the Soviet Army, was captured, escaped in Germany, learned German, then came to the US and married an American. His wife (whom I met) didn’t know what his native language was, but it wasn’t Georgian. I always wanted to find out. He had been a schoolteacher in Georgia but his credentials didn’t transfer.
    Tristan Corbiere, who grew up in Brittany (though not Breton I don’t think) is one of my favorites. Eccentric even by XIX C. French poetry standards.
    My (sole) source on the Bretons/Alans: History of the Alans in the West, Bachrach.
    Great book if you haven’t seen it: Wixman, Ronald, Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucusus, Chicago, 1980.

  8. I haven’t seen it, but have seen references to it and am dying to get hold of it.

  9. Others refer to them as Sarmatians. There is a theory that the original knights of the Round Table were Sarmatian soldiers in the Roman Army who chose to stay behind in Britain after the Empire withdrew. The original Arthur was their commander.
    Going by any number of baby name books “Alan” is supposed to mean, “Graceful or handsome”.
    The International Alan Conspiracy is a parody of conspiracy theories and doesn’t really exist anyway. Nothing to see, The Cabal (tinc) will have it all cleaned up before the press gets here any way. Continue on with your business. Make sure you spell our name right in your report. Makes debunking it much easier when you spell it right.

  10. I find the Galicians/Galateans more threatening, with their ancient homeland stretching from NW Spain to Turkey to Poland to Wales, and including the Gauls, the Walloons, and the Vlachs of course.

  11. Good old Arsène Lupin, the French Rinaldo Rinaldini! He was once as popular in Russia as Sherlock Holmes, Auguste Dupin, and Nat P.
    Speaking of the Ossetians, is their language not IE, and a close relative of farsi? Stalin’s missing father might have easily been an Ossetian, although his mother was probably Georgian (Gheladze).

  12. As I understand, Ossetian is a descendent of Scythinand and, as such one of the few surviving representatives of the “Northern Iranian” family.

  13. There are lots of Northern Iranian languages (Kurdish and Balochi being the most prominent of the Northwestern group), but Ossetian (the descendent of Alan) and the even more obscure Yaghnobi (the descendent of Sogdian) are the only surviving members of the Northeastern group.

  14. David Smales says


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